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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie

Call for abstracts



University of Zurich

Institute of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies (ISEK)

1-3 November 2018



Mustafa Akcinar, Aymon Kreil, Shirin Naef, Emanuel Schaeublin


Many parts of the contemporary Middle East are confronted with war, sectarianism, transnational interferences, uprisings, and a comeback of authoritarian regimes. This brings about various difficulties for ethnographic research as a practice of knowledge production based on the immersion of researchers in given social contexts and the subsequent writing up and publishing of texts:

Restrictions of access limit the possibility to carry out fieldwork. Local and transnational researchers have troubles accessing communities in different places. The risks of living there for 12 to 18 months (which is required for ethnographic fieldwork) include political instability and different forms of state repression. They are not easy to assess and can have far-reaching consequences for personal lives.

Writing is equally affected by these developments. Many settings leave little place for non-partisan standpoints, as narratives on the situation become arenas for competing claims of legitimacy. State and non-state institutions are often suspicious of forms of discourse that evade their control and hegemony. At the same time, political protestors may expect researchers to act as their spokespersons. This creates subtle or more direct kinds of pressures to write about certain topics rather than others or to exercise self-censorship.

The ‘destabilization’ of countries in recent years was followed by an increase of military presence and the division of territory into securitized (‘green’) and less secure ‘zones’. In such times, contextualized and nuanced accounts of the situation of different communities – which go beyond the narrow sphere of ‘policy analysis’ – are more important than ever. In theory, this is what ethnography at its best should provide.

The international conference No country for anthropologists? Contemporary ethnographic research in the Middle East explores the obstacles to do ethnography in the Middle East and take them as the starting point for reflection upon the role of anthropology with a view to the Middle East of today. To tackle the issue, the conference will revolve around four main axes, addressing the interrelated questions of:

  1. The possibility of ethnographic research for local and foreign researchers. This axis aims at discussing the impediments and incentives to research in the region, including discourses framing the perception of researchers (‘information war’, fears of transnational interferences, citizen activism, etc.); the institutional settings of research (conditions of funding, research grants, etc.); the threats to researchers and the attempts to co-opt them politically; the impossibility to access certain places and communities due to various forms of risks; and the relation between local and foreign researchers.
  1. The positionality of researchers and their interlocutors. This axis seeks first to reflect upon forms of guiding researchers’ attention, different kinds of institutional pressure, and the role interlocutors in the context of inquiry ascribe to researchers. How do these aspects affect fieldwork practice? In parallel to this line of questioning, the aim is to critically consider the relation between researchers and their interlocutors, the agendas they possibly have when communicating with each other, and their different kinds of vulnerability.
  1. The shaping of alternative methods of inquiry. This axis explores possibilities to circumvent the impediments to ethnographic modes of inquiry. This involves interrogating the anthropological understanding of fieldwork as a site for long-term ‘participant observation.’ Possible alternative methods include the use of digital sources as ethnographic material, the reliance on micro-situations to make a fragmentary portrait of a situation, reckoning with the incompleteness of ethnographic accounts, or collaborative approaches blurring the roles of ‘author’ and ‘interlocutor’. In this axis both the limits and potentialities of such alternative methods of inquiry will be discussed.
  1. The practice of ethnographic writing. The restrictions and concerns mentioned above directly affect the practice of ethnographic writing. In contexts of violence, it is often difficult to avoid taking sides, and hesitating to do so can appear as a sign of cowardice or betrayal. The need to advocate for oppressed groups has its flipside when research becomes part of discourses asserting moral truths or exclusively reproduces the narratives of certain interlocutors purporting to represent oppressed groups. Moreover, writing about certain themes can increase the vulnerability of local communities or entail legal consequences for people and institutions involved in transferring money to contested areas. This axis addresses issues related to writing ethnography, such as self-censorship, the nature of topics that researches do not mention in texts, techniques of anonymization in writing, and the afterlife of ethnographic texts. Based on these discussions, we seek to reconsider the critical power of ethnographic writing and the ethical challenges it gives rise to.

Participants are invited to discuss these issues on the basis of concrete case studies. We welcome contributions from all theoretical directions and regional areas of interest. Contributors should send an abstract of maximum 250 words and a short CV by 1 May 2018 to Emanuel Schaeublin ( Applicants will be notified by 15 May 2018 of the decision. Subsequently, participants will be asked to provide their draft paper (max. 6000 words) by 15 September 2018. It will then be circulated among the participants.

The University of Zurich covers the travel costs of participants.